By Susan McCarthy
One of the most overwhelming qualities of paper clutter is that you can find it in every room of your home - both out in the open as well as hidden in drawers and boxes. It's for this reason that organizing and getting rid of paper clutter can make a big difference throughout your house.
When people mention the things cluttering their home, it’s the piles of paper that are a major point of stress and overwhelm. Mail, bills, flyers, receipts, cards, magazines and newspapers, school papers (kids’ and adults’), craft projects, recipes, pages from your printer, materials from work, paper from events, memorabilia, documents needed for reference, and so much more; no wonder paper piles up so quickly.
In some cases, you put something down ‘temporarily’ because you don’t know what to do with it. But then the paper stays in that spot (while inviting more paper to join it).
Maybe your file drawers are full, and you dread sorting through all those papers. Or maybe you don’t have a system set up for dealing with papers related to tasks or projects you’re working on.
Let’s face it…in school you learned how to write reports and show your work for math problems. But no one ever taught you how to keep all those papers organized. No wonder bank statements, insurance policies, and all those other papers you deal with as an adult end up drifting into piles that end up here and there.
And while decluttering and organizing paper isn’t the quickest of projects, it can be very satisfying to clear flat surfaces of random piles, have space in your file cabinet, and know how to process the papers coming into your home.
Because you may have piles of paper throughout your home, getting paper under your control can shift the energy in your entire home.
Why You Feel Overwhelmed by Paper Clutter
Chances are that the reason for your paper clutter is different than that of your neighbor, coworker, or friend. Having a too-organized system creates its own sort of clutter and can be just as challenging as having no organizing system.
Take a moment to define your issues and challenges with the paper that comes into your house. Do you have no space or no scheduled time to deal with the papers that have entered your home during the week? Are you intimidated by the idea of setting up a filing system? Do you find it easier to make new folders than to find and clear out the existing folders?
Walk around your home and note (or take a photo) of the places where paper (bills, invitations, catalogs, magazines, etc.) pile up.
Scenario One: You had a filing system that you maintained for years with minimal effort. You knew how you handled things like holiday cards, store receipts, and magazines. But you lost control of your papers when you experienced a life transition – health issues (yours or a family member’s), a new child, a death, divorce or separation, a new job, retirement, a move, or any other life event that became your focus.
Scenario Two: You’ve never really learned how to handle all the paper that comes into your home and life. Every so often you’ll read a book or a magazine article that gives you enough information to declutter and create order, but it never lasts for more than a few (weeks or) months.
Scenario Three: You’ve never taken the time to create a way to deal with all the paper in your home, life, or small business. You’ve got a system that works for some of the paper you deal with, but you’ve been ignoring a lot of it and it’s affecting your stress levels.
Scenario Four: You saved every scrap of paper because you thought someone would want it at some point in the future. You now realize that isn't the case, but you have no clue where to start.
Write down three specific issues you have with the paper in your home. Resolving them will save you from watching the piles of paper clutter from returning.
The Benefits of Organizing Your Papers
Decluttering, organizing, and maintaining the papers in your home isn’t just about eliminating visual clutter; it’s about reducing stress. How often do you put a piece of paper on the nearest available surface because you don’t really know what to do with it?
Creating a filing system isn’t about keeping everything or about being a neat freak. A filing system should allow you to find the things you want to find when you want to find them. Trying to be too organized can be as challenging as not organizing at all.
What’s your ‘why’ for decluttering and organizing the paper in your home? This vision can keep you motivated when you start contemplating that it would be easier to throw boxes of old store receipts into the attic.
How to Deal with Sentimental Memorabilia that’s Paper
Sentimental paper items can include holiday cards, old invitations, postcards, letters, files from a former job, school papers (yours or your children’s) – really any paper that doesn’t have a current function but that you’ve held onto.
If you know these items have no sentimental value for you, you can toss them when you encounter them. Otherwise, set these papers aside for the end of the organizing process. When you see what you are keeping, you can decide how to store these items.
The Supplies You’ll Need to Get Your Paper Clutter under Control
Don’t go out and purchase file cabinets or any other storage items before you declutter unnecessary papers. Chances are that you’ll be able to reuse the supplies you have.
A few shallow boxes, bins, baskets, trays, etc. can help you keep things tidy while you do a preliminary sort through your paper. These are intended as temporary organizing tools. If you need to shift your decluttering project out of the way, you can shift these out of the way without mixing up the papers.
A paper shredder is useful. However, if you have years of old bills, statements, and documents that you don’t need, then you’ll probably want to hire a shredding service.
Where to Start Decluttering Paper
Start by Gathering the Visible Piles of Paper – No, you won’t start in your file cabinets. Chances are that a lot of those papers are old. The visible piles in your home likely consist of the most recent papers to join your household.
Move around your home, going into each room and gathering all the visible papers. By ‘visible,’ I mean anything that isn’t tucked into a box, bin, drawer, cabinet, closet, etc. If it’s out in the open, on a flat surface, collect it.
And, by ‘paper,’ I mean – newspapers, magazines, catalogs, mail, notes, flyers, receipts, handouts, bills, cards, invitations, statements, and things you’ve printed from the computer or torn from magazines.
Do a Preliminary Sort - You’ll want a few boxes or trays for sorting papers. You’ll also want a recycling bin nearby. If you have a paper shredder, move it where you’re working.
However, if you have boxes of paper that will need shredding, it will be worth your time and sanity to look up “paper shredding near me,” “paper shredding services near me,” and even “paper shredding events near me” to find your options for getting unnecessary papers out of your home as quickly as possible.
While you want to shred things like account numbers and social security numbers, you can be less concerned about shredding your address. After all, the mail was sent to your address, which means that bit of information isn’t private or secure.
As you sort through the papers you’ve collected, put anything you need to respond to – an invitation, the bill that needs to be paid, etc. in a tray labeled “Respond.” If a person or company is waiting for something from you, put that paper in the box or respond to it immediately – pay the bill, accept the invitation.
You’ll pick up each piece of paper and either
At this point in the process, you don’t need to file anything.
After You’ve Sorted the Visible Paper Clutter – You may have guessed this – when you finish cleaning up the visible paper clutter, start looking for paper you’ve stored in drawers, etc. However, you don’t need to sort the papers you have stored in a file cabinet or file boxes – at least not yet.
Unless you have a specific reason for storing papers in a room, consolidating all papers to a single room or space will make it much easier for you to locate papers when you need them. And, really, the only reason you’d hold onto a document is to refer to it in the future.
Decide What You’ll Do with Different Papers
Newspapers – Recycle after reading. A key feature of the news is that it is new. Will you really read a four-day old newspaper? If you can’t make the time to read the paper, cancel your subscription. You can always renew.
Magazines – Keep the current issue and toss the older issues. If you aren’t making the time to read a magazine before you get a new issue, consider if you should cancel your subscription.
Catalogs – If you order from the company, keep the most current catalog only if you find it easier to find items in a catalog than online. If you don’t order from the company, toss the catalog. (I’ll address getting your name off mailing lists below).
Charity requests – Even if you donate to the charity, you don’t need to keep the requests (or even the free notepads and address labels). You can always donate online.
Store receipts – Tuck current receipts into a file folder and clear it out once a month. If you know you aren’t going to return something, toss the receipt after you confirm that it’s been posted correctly to your debit or credit card.
Postcards for local services you may use – Toss because you can find this information in the phone book or online. If you hold onto a card, it should be as a reminder to schedule this week in the upcoming weeks.
Phone Books – Will you use a print phone book or just go online?
Notes from Classes and Workshops – Do you really need this information? (If you’ve referred to it in the past, then your answer may be yes; if you haven’t given it a second thought since the class, the answer is probably no.)
Greeting Cards – Why do you want to hold onto a greeting card? If these are sentimental items, temporarily group them in a box until you have time to go through them…after you’ve organized your functional papers.
Eliminate Junk Mail
To limit the amount of junk mail arriving in your mailbox, make your request through the Direct Mail Association. A few years back, I subscribed to an app, PaperKarma, to eliminate all the mail that was arriving addressed to my deceased mother-in-law. Putting her name on the Direct Mail list and even listing her as deceased with the post office wasn’t eliminating the daily charity requests.
I have no affiliation with PaperKarma , it’s simply an app that I’ve used. It’s simple to use but it can be time consuming in the beginning because you must enter a name as it appears on a piece of mail. That means ‘McCarthy,’ ‘Mc Carthy,’ or ‘M Carthy’ count as different entries on a database.
How to Figure Out Which Documents You Should Keep...and for How Long
It doesn’t matter whether once upon a time you had a great filing system or if you’ve never put a paper in a file folder in the past, chances are you’re holding onto more paper than you need to.
While a lot of people feel that holding onto documents ‘just in case’ is a safe route to follow, you are now filling your files with unnecessary paperwork, which could make it more difficult for you to locate or identify important documents.
And just because you can print out a copy of something doesn’t mean you are obligated to do so. You could save a digital copy if you feel you need to keep something. But in most cases, you can return to your bank or electric company’s website and look up past information.
Since I’m a professional organizer and not a lawyer, financial planner, or accountant, do an internet search for “how long should you hold onto documents” and go to a site you can trust. And remember, these are your documents so the decision as to what you hold onto is ultimately up to you.
Declutter the Papers You Don’t Need to Keep
Now that you know what you don’t need to keep, sorting through your files is a much clearer process.
Unfortunately, clearer doesn’t mean easy. Open a file drawer and grab the file folders at the front of the drawer, open them one at a time and pull out what you no longer need for reference. Return what you want to keep.
Don’t worry about filing new papers. First, clear out what you don’t need and create some space.
If you have a lot of papers to shred, investigate local shredding services. You might have to take boxes of paper to an office supply store or a shredding center; although if you have years of old paperwork, you can find out if they can come to your home. Yes, you have to pay for this service, but it can be cheaper than burning out multiple paper shredders; not to mention the time it can save you.
How to Label Files and Set Up a Filing System
When it comes to labelling files, being too specific is almost as confusing as having no order at all. And if you find yourself with one or two pieces of paper in a file, you’re being too specific.
Think about Retrieving Your Papers – You want to label your files so you can find what you’re looking for when you need it. And, to do that, you want to think about retrieving information as opposed to filing it.
By that, I mean, what do you call that thing you drive? A “car,” “auto,” “automobile,” “C” (for car), “vehicle,” or “2014 Honda CRV?” If you label your file as “vehicle,” you’ll be frantic when you go looking for it under, “car.”
Group information that goes together. For example, could car maintenance records, your AAA membership, and insurance policy all get put together in a single file
File your topics alphabetically for simplicity.
Create Routines for Organizing Paper at Home
Your efforts decluttering paperwork and setting up a filing system won’t be successful without routines to maintain order. While a routine may sound boring or demanding, once established it creates an almost effortless way to keep paper under control.
You’ve likely spent a few (or several) hours decluttering paper and getting to the point where you aren’t looking at piles of paper throughout your home. You don’t want to mess up your efforts by not setting up a routine for sorting and filing new papers.
Establish a Paper Management Schedule – I’d suggest sorting through the mail daily and then once a week, taking any necessary actions on the papers you’ve held onto. If this seems excessive, remember that this brief moment of attention will save you from watching piles build up that will be even more discouraging to tackle.
When you establish a time and a day to review your paper-related tasks, it can become easier to do. Knowing you sort through your papers at 8p on Thursdays means you don’t debate, “should I do this now or could I do it tomorrow?” While you’re forming this new routine, note it on your calendar.
My Experience with Handling Paper Clutter
For years, I thought my papers were organized because I sorted all my papers into file folders. That it was increasingly difficult to squeeze those folders into my file cabinet meant that I’d need to get another file cabinet…right?
But after my mother’s death and my father’s dementia diagnosis, I was faced with handling his finances. There were A LOT of papers and not much order. There were countless bags and boxes and file drawers of paperwork crammed throughout the house, including in the basement and attic. (And when I say papers were crammed everywhere, there were years of old bills stored under the couch.)
I had to quickly assess what was or wasn’t necessary. By the time I was done, I’d reduced that massive amount of paper down to a single file box.
I had everything that the accountant, lawyer, bank, doctor, and anyone else needed.
This gave me a fresh perspective on all the papers I’d been holding onto. I needed a fraction of what I’d been filing. Today, I have a file box (not a file cabinet). Old taxes are in a cardboard box on a shelf. Current projects are sorted into an organizer on my desk. I have a few often-referred-to binders with notes from online classes.
Instead of feeling virtuous for keeping everything, I rejoice in the freedom of letting go of unnecessary papers that don’t support my life and goals.
The process of decluttering and organizing taught me some essentials about paperwork.
More Resources to Help You Control Paper Clutter
Hi, I'm Susan
I'm a former teacher who became a professional organizer (and not because I'm a natural-born neatnik). I live with my husband and fluffy cat on a river in Massachusetts. I crochet, make handmade cards, and love reading young adult novels. Learn more about my decluttering journey here.